A feminist art show might strike some as a stale proposition at this late date. Then again, with chauvinist-chic TV shows (Mad Men, Pan Am, The Bachelor) all the rage, maybe it’s perfect timing for Body Gesture: A Group Exhibition of Feminist Art. This final salvo in Elizabeth Leach’s yearlong series of 30th anniversary programming is a museum-quality show, thoughtful and provocative as it explores feminist themes such as body image, gender polarization and a woman’s right to choose. Many among the 17 artists in the show hail from the movement’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, but several younger artists rode in on feminism’s second and third waves.
One of these is Gen X’er Nicole Eisenman, whose mixed-media print, Brillo, depicts a box of the eponymous wire pads collaged with a nude female figure. Eisenman has covered the figure’s underarms and nether regions with willy-nilly scrawls that look like hair, confronting the viewer with cultural expectations about beauty, naturality and the multimillion-dollar business of feminine depilation.
Another confrontational piece, Sophie Calle’s Histoire vraies, L’amnesie,
fills a large-format, black-and-white photograph with a man’s body: his
head cropped out, arms thrown seductively back, his penis tucked out of
sight between his thighs, in what is colloquially known as a “mangina.”
Even in 2012, it’s still a little shocking to see a man subjected to
the same brand of objectification that women have endured for millennia.
Take, for example, the cropped-out head. Women’s heads and faces have
never been all that relevant in art, from the faceless Venus of Willendorf (24,000
B.C.) to the paintings of Pop artist Tom Wesselmann, who gave his
famous female nudes big, succulent lips but no eyes and no noses.
Apparently, what is important in Western art is not a woman who can see
or breathe, but one who can suck dick. Calle reverses the standard
patriarchal tactics, though, disarming us by depersonalizing and
emasculating her male subject. Elsewhere in the show, Jenny Holzer’s
scrolling horizontal sculpture uses text to critique gender
expectations, while Rachel Lachowicz employs makeup to parody the
male-dominated minimalist art movement. Then there’s Alexis Smith, who
recasts Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE composition as LUST,
reclaiming the arena of sexual desire for women, a not entirely
uncontroversial endeavor, even in the 21st century.
In fact, work across
the gamut of Body Gesture implies that during the half-century
since Gloria Steinem-brand feminism kicked in, some aspects of being a
woman have improved, but others have gotten worse. Today, with entire
generations having grown up after feminism’s flowering, many women are
ignorant of the battles waged by elder activist sisters. All too
willing to take the movement’s hard-won achievements for granted, many
young American women have become complicit, even gleeful, participants
in their own objectification. Maybe we haven’t come such a long way
after all, baby.
SEE IT: Body Gesture: A Group Exhibition of Feminist Art is at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. 10:30 am-5:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday. Closes Jan. 28.